WASHINGTON — When the idea of an emerging Florida-to-California conservative Sun Belt burst onto the scene two decades ago, it went hand in hand with an emerging Republican majority in U.S. presidential elections. Yet today, even as many see the Sun Belt consolidating its power with an ever-greater share of voters in Congress and the Electoral College, its national dominance may actually be at risk. Pivotal regions--California, in particular--are being "greened" by environmental sentiment and a wave of women politicians far removed from old Sun Belt values.
GOP strategists, who venerate the Sun Belt the way Catholic theologians do Rome, take a risk in thinking of it as an Eternal Polity, a land of endless suburban growth and right-of-center majorities. GOP National Chairman Lee Atwater was hardly overstating party dependence two weeks ago when he described the 1990 Florida, Texas and California gubernatorial races as "the three megastate anchor to our entire Sun Belt political base." Republicans see it as a new heartland.
But it's also a region of enormous--and underestimated--change. Former characteristics, such as a dominant white Anglo culture and a massive local defense infrastructure, are giving way to new attributes such as defense installation closings and cultures rooted in Manila, Seoul and Mexico City. Old geopolitical bonds are weakening, too. Texas, in particular, is shaping up as the big brass buckle on the 1990s Sun Belt while California's ideological connection frays.
When I coined the term Sun Belt in 1969, it described a far different area. From the Carolinas west through Nashville to Oklahoma, Las Vegas and California's Great Central Valley, a politically coherent region seemed to have taken shape not only around warm weather, retirees and mushrooming population growth but a number of other phenomena: a white Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, concentrations of agribusiness, ranching and oil (from Mississippi to California); elements of a frontier, macho and law-and-order culture; many older people, and a disproportionate concentration of U.S. military installations and patriotic fervor. Back in the 1960s, much of the Sun Belt was Democratic by tradition, but its conservative ideology--stirred by Vietnam, campus radicalism and civil rights--seemed sure to push it Republican.
During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s this happened. But the 1990s look different. California, Texas and Florida have become three of the nation's most Latino states, and California will become the first nonwhite majority state early in the next century. Sun Belt retirees, once a mainstay of Goldwater conservatism, now go to "Gray Panther" meetings and lobby for high Social Security payments and other benefits, while friendlier U.S.-Soviet relations are closing military bases and terminating defense contracts from Cape Kennedy to San Diego. Three major California jurisdictions--Alameda and Marin counties, plus San Francisco--even have initiatives for nuclear-free zones.
Environmental issues are still second in Texas, to be sure, but they're surging in Florida--overtaking crime and drugs in February surveys. In California, meanwhile, "green" populism is translating into ballot initiatives that some feel threaten the future of agribusiness and the oil and timber industries. Ecotopianism, once the parochial preserve of Oregon organic vegetable growers and Big Sur drop-outs, is seeping south into the psychologies of the Pacific Sun Belt. Dipsi-doodle Valley girls and retired Marine officers alike tell bemused pollsters they'll give up aerosol sprays and drive-in movies to stop global warming.
The rise of women in politics--as well as a new set of issues including abortion and family themes--is another factor. This has a revolutionary potential in the Sun Belt, where cowboy psychologies--to say nothing of actual cowboys--still linger. In California, most of the interesting new political faces wear lipstick.
Only in law-and-order psychology does the new Sun Belt resemble the region that produced Ronald Reagan 25 years ago out of the cultural maelstrom of Berkeley and Watts. All three Sun Belt megastates, in fact, have made news with their gubernatorial aspirants' enthusiasm for criminal executions. Electric chairs are becoming more popular than mesquite grills. Of all the major issues of the 1990s, crime and the death penalty provide the only strong, continuing link with the Sun Belt's cultural genesis back in the 1960s.
Despite these broad trends, however, the Sun Belt has deep divisions. From the late 1960s through most of the 1980s, California, Texas and Florida shared a sour view of Washington liberalism and its political first cousin, meddlesome government. Of late, the South and West have been moving to opposite poles on three important government intervention-related issues: abortion, religion in politics and the environment.